Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth: Regenerating Fisheries

For decades governments have tried to save specific fisheries by restricting the catch of individual species. Sometimes this worked; sometimes it failed and fisheries collapsed. In recent years, support for another approach—the creation of marine reserves or marine parks—has been gaining momentum. These reserves, where fishing is banned, serve as natural hatcheries, helping to repopulate the surrounding area. 47

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, coastal nations pledged to create national networks of marine reserves or parks that would cover 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2012. Together these could constitute a global network of such parks.

Progress is slow. By 2006 there were 4,500 marine protected area (MPAs), most of them quite small, covering 2.2 million square kilometers, or less than 1 percent of the world’s oceans. Of the area covered by MPAs, only 0.01 percent is covered by marine reserves where fishing is banned. And a survey of 255 marine reserves reported that only 12 were routinely patrolled to enforce the ban. 48

Marine biologists are learning that there are biological hotspots that contain an unusual diversity of species in the oceans as well as on land. The challenge in marine conservation is first to identify these marine hotspots and breeding grounds and then to incorporate them into marine reserves. 49

Among the more ambitious initiatives to create marine parks thus far are one by the United States and another by Kiribati. In 2006, President George W. Bush designated 140,000 square miles in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine park. Named the Papah¯anaumoku¯akea Marine National Monument, this one park is larger than all the U.S. land-based parks combined. It is home to over 7,000 marine species, one fourth of them found only in the Hawaiian archipelago. In early 2009, President Bush declared three more ecologically rich regions nearby also as national monuments, bringing the total protected area to 195,000 square miles, an area larger than the states of Washington and Oregon combined. Fishing is limited within these monument areas, and mining and oil drilling are prohibited. 50

In early 2008, Kiribati, an island country of 98,000 people located in the South Pacific midway between Hawaii and New Zealand, announced what was at the time the world’s largest marine protected area, covering some 158,000 square miles. Comparable in size to the state of California, it encompasses eight coral atolls, two submerged reefs, and a deep-sea tuna spawning ground. 51

A U.K. team of scientists led by Dr. Andrew Balmford of the Conservation Science Group at Cambridge University has analyzed the costs of operating marine reserves on a large scale based on data from 83 relatively small, well-managed reserves. They concluded that managing reserves that covered 30 percent of the world’s oceans would cost $12–14 billion a year. This did not take into account the likely additional income from recovering fisheries, which would reduce the actual cost. 52

At stake in the creation of a global network of marine reserves is the protection and possible increase of an annual oceanic fish catch worth $70–80 billion. Balmford said, “Our study suggests that we could afford to conserve the seas and their resources in perpetuity, and for less than we are now spending on subsidies to exploit them unsustainably.” 53

Coauthor Callum Roberts of the University of York noted: “We have barely even begun the task of creating marine parks. Here in Britain a paltry one-fiftieth of one percent of our seas is encompassed by marine nature reserves and only one-fiftieth of their combined area is closed to fishing.” Still the seas are being devastated by unsustainable fishing, pollution, and mineral exploitation. The creation of the global network of marine reserves—“Serengetis of the seas,” as some have dubbed them—would also create more than 1 million jobs. Roberts went on to say, “If you put areas off limits to fishing, there is no more effective way of allowing things to live longer, grow larger, and produce more offspring.” 54

In 2001 Jane Lubchenco, former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and now head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released a statement signed by 161 leading marine scientists calling for urgent action to create the global network of marine reserves. Drawing on the research on scores of marine parks, she said: “All around the world there are different experiences, but the basic message is the same: marine reserves work, and they work fast. It is no longer a question of whether to set aside fully protected areas in the ocean, but where to establish them.” 55

The signatories noted how quickly sea life improves once the reserves are established. A case study of a snapper fishery off the coast of New England showed that fishers, though they violently opposed the establishment of the reserve, now champion it because they have seen the local population of snapper increase 40-fold. In a study in the Gulf of Maine, all fishing methods that put groundfish at risk were banned within three marine reserves totaling 17,000 square kilometers. Unexpectedly, scallops flourished in this undisturbed environment, and their populations increased by up to 14-fold within five years. This buildup within the reserves also greatly increased the scallop population outside the reserves. The 161 scientists noted that within a year or two of establishing a marine reserve, population densities increased 91 percent, average fish size went up 31 percent, and species diversity rose 20 percent. 56

While the creation of marine reserves is clearly the overriding priority in the long-standing effort to protect marine ecosystems, other measures are also required. One is to reduce the nutrient flows from fertilizer runoff and sewage that create the world’s 400 or so oceanic dead zones, in effect “deserts of the deep.” Another needed measure is to reduce the discharge of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and endocrine disrupters directly into the water or indirectly through discharge into the atmosphere. Each of these discharges that build up in the oceanic food chain threaten not only predatory marine mammals, such as seals, dolphins, and whales, but also the large predatory fish, such as tuna and swordfish, as well as the humans who eat them. 57

On a broader level, the buildup of atmospheric CO2 is leading to acidification of the oceans, which could endanger all sea life. Most immediately threatened are the coral reefs, whose carbonate structure makes them highly vulnerable to the acidification that is under way and that is gaining momentum as CO2 emissions increase. Protecting shallow water reefs that are invariably hotspots of plant and animal diversity may now depend on quickly phasing out coal-fired power plants, as does the attainment of so many other environmental goals.

In the end, governments need to eliminate fishery subsidies. Partly as a result of these subsidies, there are now so many fishing trawlers that their catch potential is nearly double the sustainable fish catch. Managing a network of marine reserves governing 30 percent of the oceans would cost only $12–14 billion—less than the $22 billion in harmful subsidies that governments dole out today to fishers. 58


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